The Weirdest Vintage ‘SNL’ Musical Performances

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Contemporary Saturday Night Live doesn’t always have its finger on the pulse the way it should. It’s done a few things wrong, like the ongoing race debacle that creators tried to make right with the recent hiring of more diverse cast members. And SNL isn’t nearly as edgy as it used to be, during the days of Eddie Murphy and John Belushi. But the gang at Studio 8H has always featured a wide variety of musical guests — some stranger than others. Dangerous Minds dug up a video of hardcore band Fear playing the SNL stage in 1981 (featured, below). Inspired by Lee Ving and company’s wild performance that seems wildly unusual for SNL, we rounded up some other weird vintage musical appearances.

Fear

Donald Pleasence can barely keep a straight face introducing Lee Ving’s hardcore band Fear. The 1981 Halloween appearance features Fear’s usual bait-y banter (“It’s great to be in New Jersey!”) and a flailing pit of moshers (including John Belushi, Ian MacKaye, Tesco Vee of The Meatmen, Harley Flanagan and John Joseph of The Cro-mags, and John Brannon of Negative Approach). After freaking out SNL producers with a wild set that apparently left behind $20,000 in damages, Fear was essentially banned from ever playing the stage again — and some clubs refused to book them after their SNL spot. The makers of the 2012 film All Ages: The Boston Hardcore Film write that “John Belushi also offered Fear the soundtrack for his major motion picture Neighbors that he was shooting at the time. The movie studio eventually forced Fear off the project after Belushi’s death.”

David Bowie, Joey Arias, Klaus Nomi

Imagine the look on the face of Middle America when David Bowie, Joey Arias, and Klaus Nomi took the stage in makeup, tights, and skirts walking a stuffed pink poodle and singing about gender roles. Did we mention Bowie turns into a puppet for his “Boys Keep Swinging” performance? A puppet with a penis, even.

Kate Bush

Kate Bush made her first American television appearance in 1978 on SNL, performing “The Man With The Child In His Eyes.” A glam, glittery, interpretive dance ensues on top of a piano. NPR has written about the weird disparity between Bush’s UK and US success:

During the time that Bush was putting out her best work, we made Cyndi Lauper a feminist icon and transformed Peter Gabriel from a peculiar art-rocker into a superstar with an album that featured cerebral oddball Laurie Anderson, Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour and Bush herself. There may been a limited number of ‘weirdo’ slots available, but we certainly weren’t instinctively turning them away at the door.

Sun Ra

Hulu Plus subscribers can get their Moog on with Sun Ra during a 1978 avant-garde performance. The A.V. Club reviewed the episode, writing: “Sun Ra might just be the oddest, least commercial artist the show has ever booked. Performing in what appeared to be a shirt-shaped prism, Ra finished and the season on a trippy, psychedelic, droning medley of “Space Is The Place” and “Space-Loneliness.”

Philip Glass

In Lorne Michaels’ 1986 kitchen-sink episode, Francis Ford Coppola co-hosted (with Cheers star George Wendt) and minimalist composer Philip Glass was the musical guest. But Michaels went a step further and let Glass rearrange the iconic opening credits song, replacing it with his “Façades” — which was originally created for the 1982 film, Koyaanisqatsi, but went unused. Splitsider writes:

The credits were different. The opening credits were also styled like the credits from an artsy, deadly serious Coppola movie. The only other time the credits were severely altered was when the whole cast dressed up as apes in the similarly thematic Charlton Heston-hosted episode in 1993; they dropped the bit a third of the way into the show. Not on the Coppola episode. Oh, and the music was different, too. Apparently wanting to attract the apparently sizable avant garde composition crowd channel surfing after the late local news, as avant garde music fans are wont to do, Michaels allowed the night’s musical guest, Philip Glass, to provide a new music for the credits of SNL. This was the only time the Coppola/Glass credits were ever used on SNL (and they were replaced with the regular saxy credits in reruns).

Devo

In 1978, art rock weirdos Devo performed their Rolling Stones cover “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The gag here is that the real Rolling Stones performed on SNL a week before. We can imagine general audiences were probably confused by a bunch of nerds in yellow jumpsuits and sunglasses performing the horny Stones anthem.

The Sugarcubes

Björk, 1988. Her first solo single “Human Behaviour” hadn’t hit the MTV airwaves yet, so this must have been a real WTF for SNL audiences.

Julee Cruise

Cruise appeared on SNL in 1990 filling in for scheduled performer Sinéad O’Connor, who refused to play the same show with guest host and controversial comedian Andrew Dice Clay (we can’t say we blame her). Twin Peaks fans are familiar with Cruise from her musical contributions, but she’s still not known by the general public. In May 1990, Twin Peaks had only been on the air for a month, so the soft-spoken Cruise’s performance of “Falling” must have been felt somewhat out of place.

The Pogues

Celtic punkers The Pogues appeared on SNL in 1990, drunk as can be. Pogues guitarist Philip Chevron writes:

I honestly don’t think we did “Battle Of Brisbane” for SNL, but it was St Patrick’s Day and I was ver ver drunk, so I can’t say for certain. I do know we were not playing “Battle” in the set at that point, so it seems likely that if we were ever going to launch into an instrumental for whatever reason, it would have been “Repeal”, which has almost never NOT been in the show. However, to the best of my knowledge, we played only “White City” and “Body Of An American”.

In other words, drunk.

Frank Zappa

Late SNL announcer Don Pardo played a part in one of the show’s weirdest performances by Frank Zappa in 1976. It was the musician’s first time on the show. Open Culture writes of Zappa’s rocky relationship with the series:

Belushi figures in the performance of another musician banned from the show—Frank Zappa—who served as both musical guest and the show’s host. Zappa’s pompous attitude alienated most of the cast and crew in his first, and last, SNL appearance in 1978. Nerve names Zappa the second worst host in the show’s history, citing his “suffocating air of smugness and unconcealed contempt for what he’d agreed to do.” During the usually chummy closing credits, “the cast members, obliged to join him onstage, clustered near the edge as if fearing his personality might be contagious.” All but Belushi, who also joined Zappa and band onstage as Samurai Futaba during their third number. As the clips above, here, and here demonstrate, even SNL‘s second worst host could still inject a good bit of wit and energy into a show that’s often wanted for both, not to mention the most well-rehearsed band in both avant-rock performance art and live televised sketch comedy.